A complex figure emerges in ‘Great Soul’

Author Joseph Lelyveld is a Pulitzer Prize winner. Author Joseph Lelyveld is a Pulitzer Prize winner. (AP)
By Bill Williams
April 28, 2011

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Mahatma Gandhi is universally remembered for his devotion to social justice and nonviolent resistance to unjust laws. Joseph Lelyveld calls Gandhi “perhaps the most written-about person of the last hundred years’’ but concludes that much of the outpouring amounts to hagiography.

Lelyveld, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and former editor of The New York Times, seeks to set the record straight in his new biography, “Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India,’’ in which he examines Gandhi’s failures as well as his successes.

Gandhi began his long career by spending two decades in South Africa, where he opened a law office, fought against discriminatory laws directed at Indian workers, and developed the nonviolent tactics that would become his hallmark. Upon his return, he campaigned to obtain India’s independence from England, end Muslim-Hindu hostility, and reform the caste system, which locked “untouchables’’ in economic and social servitude. The system was so rigid that some upper-caste Hindus would go through a purification rite if they even glanced at the lowest untouchables.

Gandhi’s many crusades unfolded against the backdrop of two world wars and the violent split that created Muslim-dominated Pakistan. More than once the highly principled Gandhi suspended his campaigns when followers resorted to violence. A particularly ugly instance came in 1922 when an angry crowd supporting independence set a police station on fire and slaughtered officers who fled the building.

As part of a cobbled-together strategy, Gandhi repeatedly fasted, led peaceful marches, and served prison sentences, with mixed results.

Lelyveld finds much to admire in Gandhi. But he also views him as a man of contradictions and idiosyncrasies, noting that Gandhi could be arrogant, dismissive, judgmental, and condescending, referring to India’s “dumb millions’’ and “the numberless men and women who have childlike faith in my wisdom.’’

The “Mahatma’’ — an honorific meaning great soul — preached sexual abstinence, adopted a vegetarian diet, railed against the widespread habit of defecating in public, and exhorted Indian villagers to engage in spinning and weaving to improve their economic status. But some of his practices were bizarre, such as sleeping with naked women to test his commitment to celibacy.

Much has been made of Lelyveld’s discussion of Gandhi’s decision to leave his wife to live with a Jewish architect named Hermann Kallenbach. They clearly had great affection for each other, but there is no suggestion in the book that they had a homosexual relationship.

And contrary to the popular image of the Indian leader as confident and self-assured, Lelyveld’s Gandhi comes across at times as an isolated, indecisive stick figure “torn between competing causes,’’ and capable of lapsing into self-pity, fearing that his “nonviolence seems almost impotent.’’

Beyond the personal, Lelyveld also makes note of the inconsistencies in Gandhi’s political positions. Despite his commitment to social justice, he was a supporter of the caste system, although he strongly opposed the untouchable classification. He also backed England’s involvement in World War II, his own aversion to violence notwithstanding.

Gandhi risked his personal safety in standing firm against the British Empire, but it would be a domestic controversy that would lead to his death. Some Hindus deplored Gandhi’s efforts to reconcile with Muslims. When Gandhi read verses from the Koran during prayer services, some hecklers shouted “Death to Gandhi.’’ Before he was fatally shot by a Hindu fanatic in 1949 at age 78, Gandhi had regularly predicted his own assassination.

In the end Gandhi’s role in the battle for Indian independence cannot be denied, and Lelyveld says that in India today Gandhi’s example of courage, persistence, identification with the poor, and striving for selflessness “still has the power to inspire, more so even than his doctrines of nonviolence and techniques of resistance.’’

Despite Lelyveld’s obvious scholarship, his overly long account too often bogs down in repetition, minor details, and obscure names. The author spends too little time giving readers a big picture assessment of Gandhi’s place in history. Still Lelyveld is a determined researcher with excellent credentials, and he succeeds in leaving us with a fuller picture of Gandhi as a leader and a man.

Bill Williams is a freelance writer in West Hartford and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He can be reached at


Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India

By Joseph Lelyveld

Knopf, 425 pp., illustrated, $28.95